Divergence on the Lectionary – All Saints, Year A

First Reading

Revelation 7:9–17

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

	“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
		and serve him day and night in his temple;
		and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
	They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
		the sun shall not strike them,
		nor any scorching heat.
	For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
		and he will guide them to springs of living water,
	and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (ESV)

Second Reading

1 John 3:1–3

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (ESV)

Gospel Text

Matthew 5:1–12

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (ESV)

Comments and Questions for Discussion

First Reading

I do love Revelation, when it’s understood correctly. Of course, the trouble is that it isn’t read and understood for what it really is by so many Christians. Those who read it as though it were some prediction of the future, as though it were prophecy, and not the genre of literature that it is, “apocalypse.” Many of you probably already know that this is what the name actually means. “Apokalupsis” is just the Greek for “Revelation,” to “take away” the veil. 

So we have a whole genre of Biblical and intertestamental literature that I suppose draws its name from this most famous example. And it isn’t prophecy. It is hope. It isn’t the telling of some vision of the distant future by some dreamer. It is an attempt to instill hope in a people sorely pressed by their circumstances, usually those experiencing persecution at the hands of a tyrannical government. It is written in the present for the present, but (usually) put on the lips of a well-respected person of the past, who speaks about the present and its tribulations as though they were his future and then goes on to describe the way that God will soon intervene to save. The strange language used to describe current events and current personages is like code. Because it is written for a people living in the midst of their persecutors, it cannot name these persecutors directly, in case the text be found by them. So the “visions” use symbolic language to name them, such as the beast with seven heads, which likely referred to the seven hills of Rome. Likewise, Christ is depicted as the Lamb with seven horns. Some interpret this to refer to His “perfect power,” as seven is a number of perfection in the Bible. I sometimes wonder, though, if He isn’t represented as the perfect opposite of Rome. In either case, He can’t be named, as He is the reason for the persecution in the first place.

There were several such books written in the period between the Old and New Testaments. Four of them that I can recall were attributed to Enoch, that man in Genesis who walked so closely with God that he didn’t experience death, but was simply gathered up to God. The most visible example of apocalypse that’s in our Bible today is the book of Daniel. This story of a faithful Jew who stood up to Nebuchadnezzar and won his favor was written during the time of the oppression by the Jews during the reign of the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes. His behavior stands as an example to Jews who are being compelled to live as Greeks. His visions speak of the crumbling of empires (the statue with the clay feet) and of hope for the future. 

The last book of the Bible varies in one major way from other apocalypses. It does not tell the story of someone out of the distant past. Instead it adopts another form well known to Christians of that era, the “epistle,” or letter. I can think of two reasons for this. First would be that Christianity does not have an “ancient past” from which to draw a figure who can speak to the present moment. (It was probably written during the persecution of the Christians in the late first century under the emperor Domitian.) Second is that the “epistle” was probably better known to many Christians in this period than the “Gospel.” Paul’s epistles date from a number of years earlier than the Gospels, and were collected and circulated during roughly the same period. It is also important to know that during this time, this sort of exhortatory epistle was thought to convey not only the thoughts of the author, but the author’s “presence.” So choosing an epistle for his apocalypse made great sense for “John.”

I should note here that there is absolutely no evidence that the author of Revelation was the author of John’s Gospel. Indeed, in the book itself it gives us clear evidence that such was not the case. The author says that he is in exile on Patmos. The author of the Gospel according to John settled and died in Ephesus. His grave is still there. (Actually, there are two, but that’s a story for another time.) Further, the book of Revelation and the earliest versions of John’s Gospel (It seems to have undergone a good deal of revision and addition over time.) are roughly contemporary. When it came time to decide which books would be included in the Bible, Revelation was the most hotly contested. I suspect that it was the tradition of attributing it to the author of the Gospel that got it in, but whoever the author of Revelation was, it wasn’t John of the Gospel.

So now we have a context for the passage we’re reading this week. John envisages believers from every language and nation, those who have come “out of the great tribulation.” The tribulation then has a very specific meaning to the people for whom it was written, the persecution under Domitian. And as the altar of the Temple had been sanctified by the blood of the sacrificed lambs, these believers have also been cleansed by the Lamb’s blood. They cry out to God with the kind of praise that would have been reserved for the emperor as part of the emperor cult. Instead of ruling with an iron fist, God “wipes away every tear from their eyes.” This is the hope to which Christians were called by John.

I would like to add something about the value of this for us, in this present day. While it wasn’t written as prophecy for us, and certainly not as a description of the end times, I still think its writing and inclusion in the Bible was inspired. Why? Because it holds out hope, because it does include God’s vision for us and our relationship to Him. As the capstone to all of Scripture, it leaves us with a final image, not of everyone going off to live in heaven, but of God coming to dwell among us, of a new Jerusalem descending from heaven. God’s final word to us is that in the end He will bring His dwelling place here, not take us off somewhere, and that is Good News indeed.

Second Reading

When I first sat down to write on this excerpt from 1 John, I thought that there were rather few occurrences of this letter in the lectionary. I was wrong. Interestingly, there are eight total lections which use portions of John’s first epistle, most of them occurring next year, Year B. So it’ll be worthwhile to spend some time introducing the text as a whole before commenting on this week’s selection.

Unlike Paul’s letters, 1 John does not permit us to clearly identify either the intended audience or the author. While commonly attributed to John the evangelist, there is significant evidence to suggest that the writer and readers of this text actually lack knowledge of the Gospel of John. (see Judith M. Lieu’s commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John) calling that assumption into question. Nevertheless, this letter does exhibit some similar world views as those found in John, particularly its dualism. Stark oppositions between dark and light, being of God and of the world, us and them are characteristic of the Johannine Gospel and the letters. While this helps us locate the author and readers in a certain thought-world, it doesn’t lead to any more specificity. 

The letter also lacks the kind of linear structure that we find in Paul. It doesn’t begin in one place and proceed through various rhetorical devices to another. Rather, it has often been described as having a “circular” or “spiral” structure. It makes reference to a given theme or idea and then goes on, only to circle back to that idea later, and then again even later. It is called a “spiral” structure because each reiteration of that theme or idea is somewhat more developed each time it occurs. 

But my reading on 1 John did bring me to one article that helped me see a slightly more linear direction for the letter. I’m not sure I can say this for certain without more detailed study of the text than I can give it here, but I suspect that if we were to want to find a direction for the letter, it would be the vertical dimension of the spiral. That is, this gradual development of the ideas when the author circles back to them, points to his (the authorship is almost certainly male) point of origin and aim.

And their is a definite sense of development as identified by Lieu in her article, “Us or You? Persuasion and Identity in 1 John.” The development I see in her article is the movement of the intended readers/audience from the place of “you” (plural) over against the “we” (those with whom the author identifies) to an inclusion of the audience in the “we” by the end of the letter. When the letter begins there is a distinct disconnect between first and second persons. “We” have all the authority, “you” listen and receive from “us.” But by the end of the letter, the second person has disappeared in favor of the first. This seems to be the aim of the letter as a whole. Acceptance of the content of the letter moves the audience from that lesser position into the greater. And it isn’t supposed that there would be any resistance to this. The letter gives no evidence of likely disagreement. 

Lastly, I should mention the place of the “antichrists” who have “gone out from us.” I had always read this letter conflating the first and second persons in the beginning of the letter which led me to understand that the division between “us” and the ones who had left was also between the audience of the letter and these others. But that doesn’t fit with the actual text. At the time of the mention of these “antichrists” “we” are still seen as separate from the audience of the letter. The ones who have “gone out” went out from the author and his circle, not the audience. We don’t know a great deal about them, but we can identify a few characteristics. One, they “hate” their brothers. Two, they separate themselves (go out). Three, they deny that “Jesus is the Christ.”  This split must have been known to the letter’s intended recipients, but they had not directly experienced it. This leads me to conclude that the schism may have been a strong reason underlying the letter. The author, knowing that the intended readers were witness to the split, writes to reinforce his circle’s relationship to the recipients, gradually moving from that we/you position of superiority to a common position of “we” by the end of the letter. 

Now, on to the portion of 1 John in our lectionary for All Saints, Year A.

Here, in chapter 3 of 1 John, we have the first time that “we” includes “you.” Up until this point there has been that stark differentiation. “We” are the ones who speak with authority, “you” are the ones who listen and receive “our” word. But now “we” are children of God, all of us. And what is it that draws them all into the same circle in their Venn diagram? The love of the Father who calls them all His children. Up till this point the author spoke to his readers as though they were his children, but now, they are all children of the one Father. 

Given the deep divisions we find between Christians of different stripes in today’s world, I can’t help but wonder what the author of 1 John would have to say. Would he encourage us to view each other as siblings? Or point, as some do, at certain Christians and name them as those who “have gone out from us?” I am content to know that, one, I do not hate my Christian siblings, two, I have not separated myself from anyone, and three, I do not deny that Jesus is the Christ.

Gospel Text

Earlier in this lectionary year I wrote about the Beatitudes as the opening words of the first of five large sections into which Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching. This is one of the ways that Matthew has depicted Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” who was to come. You can read about that here, in the Divergence for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.

I’ve also written elsewhere (under Receiving Your Inheritance) about a very new way in which I’ve been led to read the Beatitudes. That is that Jesus isn’t describing consolations for those who are poor, or meek, or mourning, but instead describing what it would be like to be His followers.

I do this by reversing which adjective in each beatitude is read as the substantive, the noun. We read “blessed” as the adjective, but I think Jesus meant it as the noun. So it’s not “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” but “The Blessed are poor in Spirit.” When I first wrote about this I was writing on the version of the Beatitudes we find in Luke, where he recounts fewer of them. I’d like to try to write out each of them from Matthew in a new way, to see how they work in this way of reading.

“The blessed are poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” That is, because the Blessed have the Kingdom of heaven, they will be seen as poor, for they no longer desire the things of the world.

“The blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That is, the Blessed mourn because they know the consolation of God’s love in a way the world does not, and so they mourn for others.

“The blessed are meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” That is, because the Blessed have inherited the earth, (they possess everything, as Paul puts it) they are meek. They pursue nothing for they need nothing.

“The blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” That is, the Blessed hunger and thirst after righteousness for they know that only this will satisfy.

“The blessed are merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” That is, the Blessed are merciful because they will have received mercy already. 

“The blessed are pure in heart, for they shall see God.” That is, seeing God purifies the heart of the Blessed. Again like Paul, beholding God’s glory, we are transformed into the same image, from glory to glory. (2 Cor. 3:18)

“The blessed are peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (and daughters) of God.” Having had the title “child of God” conferred on us, the Blessed spread peace where they tread. “Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you.” Those who are at peace with themselves because they know who they are carry that peace like a mantle with them, and it touches all whom they pass.

“The blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs in the Kingdom of God.” That is, the Blessed will be persecuted because they choose the righteousness of the Kingdom over the righteousness of the world.

Then, Jesus shifts in the last beatitude. He has spoken of the Blessed in the third person, if you will, but this time he points to His disciples and says, “The blessed are you, when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” That is, you will know that you are among the Blessed when you are reviled for it. 

I daresay that many reading this will think me completely off my rocker, but I still think this is how Jesus meant them. For too long, the poor, the downtrodden have been told to accept their station in life as a “blessing,” not a cost or a result of discipleship. The way of reading that I’ve described frees us from this abhorrent way of interpreting the text, holding out distant heavenly rewards for those who suffer or try to do the right thing. 

For a more easily printable version of this Divergence, please CLICK HERE.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you!!! I agree. This way of reading ‘the blessed’ makes more sense when read with Jesus’s teachings and the rest of the chapter

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